The Willows: Haven, by Hope Collier
Soul Fire Press, 2011
When tragedy strikes, seventeen year-old Ashton Blake sets out on a cross-country road trip, leaving the comforts of Malibu for the mountains of Kentucky. Along the way, she encounters Gabe Willoughby—the mysterious drifter with eyes like the sea and a knowing smile. Getting to know Gabe raises questions about her past. But no secret can be buried forever, and Ashton soon finds herself in a world where water is air and myth becomes reality.
Just as Ashton comes to accept her newfound heritage, she’s summoned to fulfill a treaty laid down centuries before — a treaty that will divide her love and test her loyalty. In the end, her future isn’t her biggest concern, her humanity is. To run may mean war, but is she strong enough to stay?
Ashton Blake navigates through revelers at a party with her cellphone pressed to one ear, trying to connection to “Harry” on the other end of the line. Someone notices her distress and asks her if she’s alright. She brushes him off, fumbles for her keys and shoves them at the valet. She’s just closed the door of her BMW when her boyfriend Kevin orders her out of the car. The party is in honor of her eighteenth birthday and he spent a fortune on it. His brother Kyle, also her best friend, spies his death grip on her wrist and Kevin lets go. Aston drives off. She calls the airport for a flight out of town but hangs up on the booking agent when Harry calls through. He has bad news. Her father is dead. He instructs her to meet him in southeast Kentucky in six days.
Not willing to stop at her apartment, Ashton stops at a shopping mall for luggage and clothing before driving out of LA. She stops in for the night in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the hotel clerk notices the Kevin’s palm and finger prints on her wrist. Ashton withdraws her arm, recalling it’s not the first time her boyfriend’s left marks on her. She tries to sleep but can’t.
The desk is manned the next morning by a man who towers over her. She does her best to ignore him while he flirts with her, but he makes her skin crawl. Then while driving down the highway, she is cut off by a reckless truck and run off the road. A shadow approaches the car but turns and runs away at the last minute. A motorcycle rider knocks on her window and offers to help her free her car. After managing to run over his bike in the process, she gives him a lift back to a truck stop and buys him lunch. His name is Gabe. He’s cute, sweet, and now stranded because of her, so she offers him a ride east.
The Willows: Haven, as the colon suggests, is the first book of a paranormal romance series featuring a spoiled heiress, Ashton, who finds a soulmate in Gabe Willoughby, a wandering nymph. Yes, nymph, as in the Greek sense. Specifically the naiad variety. Needless to say, he’s charming as Hell when the devil wants something.
First I will say that I liked The Willows. The writing flowed well, and the plot revealed its secrets in timely enough fashion to keep me engaged from beginning to end. The characters are solid and three dimensional. Most hints that she places in the early chapters are subtle enough to pass unnoticed, while remaining strong enough to be recalled by the reader when they become important later.
Ashton’s “rich girl” persona is paper thin, a fact that is lost on her boyfriend. Kyle and Gabe see the complex woman underneath. She is smart, gracious, and thoughtful. She draws these qualities out of others around her. When Ashton is free of the superficial life she leads in Malibu, the only clue to her wealth is the money she spends. For much of the story she’s just a grieving young woman, grabbing onto what remains of her family, and falling in love with the kind, mysterious stranger who tags along for the journey and makes things interesting.
The scenery is somewhat a blur at the beginning. The focus of the narration is on Ashton’s shock and grief, and Los Angeles isn’t really there. It’s not until Texas lake house that I really felt the setting. As a current resident of Louisiana, I pictured Lake Maurepas and the marshlands as Ashton remembers her fourteenth birthday. Later, the mountains in Kentucky come alive.
There were a few places in the book that snagged my attention. Ashton’s behavior breaks my suspension of disbelief twice early on in the book. The story needs to have Ashton and Gabe together for a cross-country drive to Kentucky, but I didn’t buy a pampered 18-year-old making a decision on the spot to drive out of LA the way she did. It just didn’t ring true for me when I considered that she just hung up on an airline booking agent prior to getting the news about her father. I think Ashton would have called her friend Kyle and told him about her dad. He would have met her on the highway and taken her home. She would have booked a flight out to Kentucky for the funeral.
Second, I didn’t like the “friendly hitchhiker” set-up. An hour or so after meeting Gabe, she invites him to join her on her road trip. They share hotel rooms. She takes him to her father’s lake house in Texas. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom, and I’m old enough to have a daughter her age, but the warning flags going off in my head were very distracting. The road trip is crucial to the story, but I wish it had been set up differently.
That having been said, I very much liked Gabe. He’s witty, strong, and wise. His care and respect for Ashton is apparent. When his secrets begin to unravel, it’s easy to forgive his early misteps. Ashton is more immature in the beginning, even a little grating, but Gabe brings out lovely qualities in her that were lurking beneath the surface.
Another snag, without giving anything away, the story has two red herrings. I saw both coming and I didn’t buy either. I enjoyed reading along as both misdirections were untangled by the characters, but all of the suspicions I formed in the first half of the book were confirmed by the end. I do wish the story had surprised me.
I would recommend The Willows to YA paranormal romance fans, particularly anyone fond of Rebecca Hamilton, Krystal Wade, or S.M. Boyce.